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Greenhouse Effects 

Greenhouses and the atmosphere:  'greenhouse gases', 'greenhouse effects', 'enhanced greenhouse effects'.  

Teaching Climate Change home page


 Note: This page has not been revised since it was created in 2002. 
Since then all predictions of based on these understandings have been supported by statistics of Warmer Trace Gas emission and fossil fuel use. Other support is provided by the collapse of Carbon Tax measures and the carbon trading fiasco. The theory has been considerably developed and a  part summary of it
can be found in Letter to Greenpeace posted May 2006


The term 'greenhouse' has major effects on our world perception.  

    The Greenhouse World View  compared to The Atmosphere World View

The prime image the term 'greenhouse' evokes is of Man-made structures that enable us to maintain plants out of season, out of region and with accelerated life cycles. This is accomplished with the provision of natural light, a heat source and by the careful suppression of air convection.  

 The common experience of the climates inside and outside greenhouses is that they are very different. Wind, rain, snow and hail are almost non-existent inside.

There are many other reasons why climatologists do not feel the atmosphere works like a greenhouse. For instance, the thermal distribution and the effect of gravity on the different sized gas molecules is very different. The energy systems are different and chaos theory is complicated by human factors in greenhouses.

So why do many climatologists persist with the term ‘greenhouse’?

The Language Blind. They do not believe that the choice of words matters all that much –‘its just a convenient expression or a loose metaphor’.

The Teacher Blind. They do not appreciate that as acknowledged experts they are also teachers. Their choice of terms affects fundamental curriculum choices in schools. For instance, their choice of the greenhouse image means schools develop a Greenhouse education model of lesson activities rather than a Warmer Trace Gas education model for teaching Climate Change issues .

The History Bind. In the early 1820s, the genius mathematician Fourier, ‘Father of Thermodynamics’, conceived the metaphor of the greenhouse to describe the atmosphere’s effect on global temperatures. In an age where few even knew that the atmosphere contains mass, this was an extraordinary and creative leap in awareness. The image was so powerful in its time that the terms remain embedded in our language today.

The Media Bind.  Climatologists feel they have to use 'greenhouse' terms, to communicate through the media, despite their personal reservations about the scientific accuracy of the terms. The media use the terms because “the experts’ use them.

The Legal Bind. The term 'greenhouse' is now imbedded in international treaties such as the Kyoto Protocols. Some feel bound to use such legalese in daily communications.

The Peer Bind. Some are fearful of loss of academic credibility if they use terms other than the conventional ‘greenhouse’ terms.

The Specialist Bind. The demands of specialisation mean climatologists do not get the opportunity to work along side architects, builders, teachers, consumer advisers etc. They remain unaware of how likening the atmosphere to greenhouses creates serious learning blocks to teaching the thermodynamics of air. These blocks inhibit education of the role of air in the design and construction of thermal barriers. This, in turn, results in diminished life styles and degraded environments for many. See the teaching of Insulation: Best Uses of Air

The “God” Belief. Fourier’s greenhouse model coincided with Industrialisation and complemented Victorian beliefs. For instance the awe-inspiring Crystal Palace was build for the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a symbol of Britain's greatness and of Man’s dominion over Nature. Some climatologists enjoy the greenhouse image because they believe we can engineer Earth’s atmosphere just as we manipulate the atmosphere in a greenhouse. Others have a different sensibility about the potential risks of this approach but persist with the term ‘greenhouse’ because of the other reasons outlined.

A page detailing the learning blocks and confusion generated by the use of the term ‘greenhouse’  will be developed when time permits.  

Helpful concepts:

Air acts like air.

The atmosphere acts like the atmosphere on Earth’s surface.

The Atmospheric Effect is the warming effect the atmosphere has on Earth’s surface.

The Greenhouse Education Model (Insulation). See  Best Uses of Air

This page is part of a programme  Communicating and Teaching the scientific principles underlying Climate Change issues.


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Web link Sermons on the Great Exhibition.
(behold the palace of the skies.)

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